Groomed to Death

Urban beaches around the world have less garbage than remote beaches, but less life too. The City of Santa Monica hopes to change the image of a clean beach.

As Gavin Andrus takes a seat at the helm of a green John Deere tractor, it’s still dark out at the Santa Monica Pier. The stationary Ferris wheel is silhouetted against the city sky, and unseen waves crash against the pilings and lap against the sandy shore. The rhythmic onslaught brings with it the flotsam and jetsam of modern society: plastic grocery bags, cigarette butts, straws. Some of this refuse may have been expelled from the city storm drains. Some of it may have been cast off by thoughtless beachgoers the day before. And some of it may have been borne on the currents, washing in from Mexico or Japan or who knows where…

…“There’s a whole ecosystem that would survive here without beach grooming,” says Karina Johnston, the director of watershed programs at the Bay Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded to protect the Santa Monica Bay.

On a cloudy May morning, she’s come out to one particular stretch of beach to show me what an ungroomed beach looks like in an urban environment, and the answer is, in part, flowers. Hundreds of canary-yellow flowers—the blooms of beach evening primrose—dot the rippling contours of the low dunes here. It’s the site of a pilot rewilding project that Johnston has been shepherding for the past two years.

In December 2016, the Bay Foundation, in partnership with the City of Santa Monica, erected a wooden sand fence on this section of the beach—a little larger than a stadium-sized soccer field—to keep the groomers out and encourage the formation of dune hummocks….